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Katie Higgins was the first girl I ever loved. We spent one summer together at Lake Fisher when we were sixteen and then I never saw her again. My life is shit, my job is gone, and my dad had a stroke, so I find myself back at Lake Fisher once again. And so does Katie. Her last name isn’t Higgins anymore, because Katie is married with three kids and one more on the way, but when she shows up at Lake Fisher with her kids, danger trails her all the way there. I could do a lot of things. I could leave and go home. I could stay and deal with it. But what I want most of all is just to take care of Katie. If I concentrate on her, maybe I won’t have to face my own problems. Yeah, that’s it. Fix Katie.
I haven’t seen Jake in eighteen years, but the moment I lay eyes on him, I feel safer than I have in a very long time. Memories swamp me every time I look out over the clear, cool water. A first kiss. A first boyfriend. A first love. That old spark is still there. I just can’t act on it, and neither can Jake. Our story started eighteen years ago, and then we both made lives with other people. Jake is willing to tell me about his, but I can’t share mine with him. Ever. We can be friends and spend another summer together, right? Sure, we can.
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Get a dog, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.
I had no idea that getting a dog would be like adopting a child. They wanted my blood type—you know, in case the dog ever needs one of my organs—and they wanted to know how much money I make a year.
Ha-ha. I fooled them. I don’t make any money. Not anymore. Not since my life went to shit.
My new dog sits in the passenger seat with his snout out the window, his tongue lolling so hard that it occasionally smacks him in the jaw when I take a turn. Why don’t I put the window up, you ask. Well, that would mean I’d have to smell the beast. I’m not one to judge, because I’ve met some unsavory characters before, and a few of them had odors I never ever want to encounter again. Not to mention that my own smell offends me on occasion when I leave the gym… But this dog, he takes the prize for most foul smell ever. It’s like sweaty ass. Sweaty ass that has been stuffed in a gym bag for days and forgotten. Then crapped on. That’s what this dog smells like.
I pull up to the police station and grab the leash, holding tightly. When I left the pound with this thing, he pulled me all the way to the car, not stopping. He sensed freedom, and I was the portal. Or at least my truck was. He hopped up in the seat, I cracked the window, and he’s been riding happily for the past twenty minutes.
But now, now he’s not happy that I want him to get out of the truck. I tug on his leash and he looks at me, hunkering down a little in the seat like a surfer might hug his board.
Then the corner of his lip lifts.
Oh, no, you hateful bastard. You will not growl at me. I lift my lip too, and I stare at him. His eyes hold mine, not breaking away. We go on like this for about two minutes, and then he stops, shakes his head, and finally gets his big ass out of the truck. He lumbers onto the pavement, stopping to stretch his great big body.
This thing is like a horse. They called it a Great Dane mix at the pound, but if it’s a mix of anything, it’s mixed with bear. Or bull. Or elephant. Because this sucker is huge. He stands at the same height as my hip, and I’m a big guy, topping out at six foot four.
I tug on his leash and say, “Come on, killer. I need to get my job back.”
We walk into the police station and the rookie behind the counter lifts the neck of her shirt to cover her nose. “What the heck is that?” she asks through the material.
I don’t answer her. Anyone with half a brain can see that it’s a dog.
“Is the chief around?” I ask her.
She shakes her head, which is not an easy feat while she holds her shirt to her face. “He just left. You might be able to catch him at his car if you hurry. Like right now.”
I lean against the wall and pretend to scratch at a stain on my shirt. “You mean like right now? This second?”
My new dog gets up, spins around, and the smell of him fills the whole front of the station. The rookie gags a little and points to the door. “Hurry, or he’ll be gone.”
I click my tongue at my new dog and he trots out the door behind me. I see the chief by his squad car, talking on his cell phone. He puts it away and stares at me through the shiny lenses of his sunglasses. “What the hell is that?” he asks, eyeing my dog.
“That, my friend, is my therapy. Get a dog, you said. So, I got a dog.” I show him off like he’s a prize on The Price is Right. “So can I get off suspension now?”
“No.” He opens his car door.
“Why not? I got a dog just like you said.”
“Three months, Jake. Three months. Not a day sooner.” He gets in his car and pulls out of his spot without even looking at me. But when he gets ready to pull away, he puts his window down. “Take that stupid thing home and give it a bath. It smells like shit.”
I look down at the dog. “It’s not that bad,” I grumble.
“It’s terrible. Go clean him up. Then learn to at least look like you like him. That’s the first step.”
“I like him,” I insist.
“Sure you do,” he says, and he finally grins and shakes his head. “Get your head on straight, Jake. Then come back. We need you, but we need you at your best.” Over the tops of his lenses he gives me one of those fatherly looks he’s famous for. Then he pulls out of the parking area.
I stare down at my new dog, who has sprawled himself out across the sidewalk and is licking where his balls probably used to be. “I’d do that too, if I could reach mine, dude,” I tell him.
He yawns and stares up at me. Then he sneezes and slings snot across my shoe. With a dog this big, that’s a lot of snot. I’m not looking forward to when he takes a dump.
My phone rings in my pocket and I pull it out, hoping deep inside that the chief is calling me to tell me he rethought his position on my return to work, that since I got a dog, he knows I’m rehabilitated. That he wants me back at work. That they need me fiercely and the department can’t continue to prosper without me.
“Hello,” I say, when I see that it’s an unknown number.
“Hi, can I speak with Mr. Jacobson, please?”
“Mr. Jacobson, I’m very sorry to have to call you with this information, but it’s about your father.”
“What has the old bastard done now?” I ask. He’s probably chasing one too many women around the bingo hall. Or he’s finally managed to catch one of them. Usually, they just slap him and he moves on to the next one.
“Your father has had a stroke, Mr. Jacobson. I’m very sorry.”
My gut twists and the pulse in my right eye starts to pound. “Is he dead?” I ask. My father might be a mean old codger, but I don’t want him to die.
“Oh, no,” she rushes to say. “He’ll need therapy, but he’s alive. Right now he’s complaining about the lunch special. And he just threatened to stick a fork in my eye if I didn’t find some chocolate pudding.”
The clench around my heart eases a little. “What do you need from me?”
“Well,” she stops to clear her throat, “here’s the thing. Your father’s insurance won’t cover in-home care, and he doesn’t want to go to a nursing facility.”
I hear grumbling from the other end of the phone and the nurse grunts. “Jake,” I hear. It’s my dad, and his voice is gruff with sleep. In my head, I imagine him lying there attached to monitors with tubes sticking out of him.
“Pop,” I reply. “What’s up?”
“The sky,” he says, deadpan.
“That’s good,” I reply, and I smile. “Better than if it fell down.”
Dad is silent for a moment. Dad is never silent. He always has something to say, and it’s usually not anything nice. “What’s up with you?” he finally asks.
I look down at the beast lying at my feet. “I got a dog.”
“One of those yappy little things?”
“Oh, no.” I tilt my head. The dog’s tongue is lying beside him on the sidewalk where he’s panting. “Definitely not yappy. Or little.”
“Well, bring him with you when you come, will you?” He gets quiet again.
“You…want me to come there?”
“Well, who else is going to come and spring me? This is like jail, son. They won’t let me go home unless I have someone to stay with me.” He clears his throat and I can tell he doesn’t like asking. “It’s not like I need you to wipe my ass or anything. I just need you to pick me up. Stay for a few weeks.”
“Okay, Pop. I’ll pick you up. I’m on my way.”
“How long?” he asks, and I think I hear him sniffle.
Pop’s in North Carolina and I’m in New York. “I can be there tomorrow.” If I drive all night.
“I’ll see you then.” There’s a shuffling of the phone and I can hear him talking to the nurse. “He’s on the way. Now get my chocolate pudding.”
“Put down the fork, Mr. Jacobson,” she scolds. She should be glad he’s not grabbing her ass, because that’s what he usually does. The line goes dead as the call is ended.
I look down at my dog. “Want to go on a road trip?” I ask him. His tail starts to thump against the concrete, but he doesn’t lift his head. “Let’s go, dog.”
He lumbers to his feet, stretches, and then takes his spot in the front seat of my truck. I wonder if I could run him through the car wash…
My eyes are blurry when I finally get to the campground. Well, it’s not really a campground. It’s a bunch of cabins in a park near a lake. My family came here the summer I turned sixteen. It looks smaller than it did when I was a child, and a little more run-down, but to be honest, I’d take just about anything over where I’ve been.
My daughter, my copilot, is in the passenger seat. She’s the same age I was the year my dads and I came here, and I want to share this place with her more than any of the other kids.
“This is it?” she says, looking around at the thimble-sized cabins.
“Yes, this is it.” This is the best place on earth, little girl, and hopefully the safest place.
“You have to be kidding me.”
It’s a good thing God makes children cute, or parents would eat their young. “Will you sit with the kids while I get the keys?”
“Duh,” she says with all the ego of a sixteen-year-old ingrate. Normally, she would have her face stuffed in her cell phone but I didn’t let her bring it with her. I didn’t bring mine, either.
I walk to the camp office, where there’s a metal box with a combination lock on it. That’s where the instructions said I would find the keys. I pull a piece of paper from my pocket where I’ve written the lock numbers and I dial them in. The box opens and I see a set of keys. They’re small copper keys and I pick them up. The key ring has a naked centerfold on it. That’s just like Mr. Jacobson. He’ll never change.
I remember Mr. Jacobson as a surly middle-aged man. He was never very nice, but he was interesting. You wanted to ask him things just so he would bark at you and threaten to beat you over the head with a boat oar, because when you turned your back, he’d be halfway grinning and there was a chance you could catch it if you looked at just the right time.
I wonder where he is now.
I see my children getting out of the car and I lay a hand on my pregnant belly. I’m eight months along, and every move I make causes a counter move from the newbie, as Gabby likes to call him. Gabby is my oldest, and she tends to get stuck with the children when I’m busy. Then there’s Alex. He’s nine. The youngest is Trixie, who is seven. We thought we were done after Alex. Then Trixie surprised us all, who got the nickname when Alex couldn’t say Tracy. Then life went to shit, and now I’m here, trying to escape it all.
The baby that’s still at residence in my belly gives a little kick. “I know, baby,” I say to him, “you’re not shit. Life is shit. Our circumstances are shit. But you, baby boy, you are loved. My coming back here proves it.” I heave a sigh and start toward my children, who are tumbling out of the car like jack-in-the-boxes. The two youngest live like they’re on coiled springs all the time. Gabby grabs Trixie’s hand as she slips it into hers and Gabby smiles down at her. Trixie is the quiet one, the one who has been most affected by my poor decisions.
“Can we go swimming?” Alex asks.
I look down at my watch. It’s seven in the morning. “We need to unpack first. Then we can go swimming.”
He jumps up and down, pumping his fists. Trixie leans her head into Gabby’s thigh and smiles her soft smile, the one that always makes my heart melt.
I pop the trunk and we start unloading the car. We brought baskets of clothes, but not much more. We were in a bit of a hurry. We brought what was in the washer and dryer, and the kids were able to grab two toys each. Nothing more. “Did you guys bring swimsuits?” I ask.
They all look at Gabby. “Yes!” she cries. “I got swimsuits. One for each of them!” She makes grabby fingers and starts to chase the little ones around. They squeal and run in circles, yelling while she growls and chases them.
We stand outside looking at the tiny cabin where I used to spend every summer. I asked for cabin number 114, and they said it was available. It looks just the same, but smaller. Or I’m bigger. I’m not sure which.
“Let’s go inside, shall we?” I say, forcing a smile to my face.
Gabby grabs baskets of clothes and passes them to the smaller kids, and Trixie’s basket immediately tips and dumps onto the ground. Her eyes well up with tears.
“No one here is going to get mad at you, Trix,” I tell her. Then I dump my basket, too. I grin. “Oops! Look what I did!”
My kids have had enough anger to last a lifetime. I don’t want them to have one more minute. Gabby dumps the basket she’s holding too, and Trixie finally starts to giggle. We sing a song as we clean it all up, and I stick the key in the lock of the cabin, giving it a gentle turn. The door creaks and dust falls down around us like snowflakes in beams of sunlight as we step inside.
“Wow, this is a pit,” Gabby complains.
“It’s not a pit. It’s charming.” It has the same country-blue curtains it had when I was a girl, only now they’re a little worn by time. And dust. I cough and push open a window. “Let’s get these open and air the place out a little,” I say. The kids and I go around opening windows, letting in the summer lake breeze. It’s the middle of May, and the campground probably hasn’t been used yet this year. In fact, I was surprised that they let me have a cabin at this time of the year. “We can clean it up. No worries.”
The tiny cabin has two bedrooms and a pullout couch. Calling them bedrooms is actually a stretch. They’re more like glorified closets with beds in them. Gabby will have her own room, and I’ll take the couch. And the two younger kids will share, since there are bunk beds in that room. “Let’s get some beds made up, and then we can go swimming.”
The kids and I go around putting sheets and blankets on all the beds, and we dust as much as we can, but it feels like every time we move, more dust falls out of the sky on us.
Finally, I flop onto the sofa. I need a nap. I drove all night.
The light patter of butterfly wings on my temple gets my attention. I open my eyes to find Alex staring down at me, his face touching mine, his eyes so close that his long dark lashes are sweeping my skin. “Can we go swimming now?” he asks.
I nod and hold out a hand so he can heave me to my feet. He pulls me up like a champ, and then they all run off to put on swimsuits. They come back moments later. “You’re not going to swim, Mom?” Gabby asks. But her eyes hold a world full of knowledge, more than she should have ever had to deal with.
“Not today,” I say.
She nods like she understands, but what she doesn’t understand is why my bad choices got us here, how I could have been so weak. How I messed it up so bad. “Let’s go, little kids,” she cries, barking like a drill sergeant. She got that from her dad. She also says “up and at ’em” and “get a move on, knuckleheads” just like her dad. The little ones line up behind her like ducklings, and then she starts to march. They follow her, walking with their knees lifting up high, their backs straight.
It’s a short walk to the beach area, down a wide path where those with bigger cabins drive golf carts down to the water. We don’t need anything like that, not while we have feet capable of walking, my dads would say.
There’s a cool breeze coming off the lake, but the air is warm and the sun is shining. I have a feeling that the kids are going to stick one toe in the water and decide it’s too cold for swimming, but they might surprise me.
We spread our towels on the sand and I sit down, crossing my legs in front of me. The sun feels good on my legs, so I pull my hat off in hopes of feeling it on my face.
Gabby rushes forward, pushes my hat back down on my head and adjusts it. “Right,” I mutter. I almost forgot. “Thank you.”
“I’m going to take them wading,” Gabby says. Lately she looks at me like I’m going to break, and I hate it. She shouldn’t have to deal with all she’s faced the past year. My biggest fear is that she won’t trust me anymore.
But to be honest, I don’t trust myself either.
In the truck, Pop grumbles about the dog, about the air conditioning, and about the way I drive. “Are you trying to freeze me to death?” he asks as he turns a vent away from him.
I flip the air off and lower the window. The dog comes forward in the backseat and puts his face beside mine so he can get closer to the window. His breath smells like a decaying body, so I open the back window, and he sticks his whole upper body out, and his big ears slap him in the face.
Before he left, they gave Pop a handful of prescriptions, so he sat in the truck with the dog while I had them filled. He’s been in a better mood. Maybe circa 1970. If he wasn’t grumbling about something, he wouldn’t be Pop. But today…today, he’s working hard to annoy me.
We pull up to the house and I cut the engine of my truck. I look over at Pop. “Can you get out by yourself?”
“I can manage,” he says. He ended up with no lasting effects from the stroke, except for some occasional one-sided weakness. They sent him home with a cane. It was a bad idea, because Pop will just try to hit people with it, I’d wager. “What are you going to do with that dog?”
I look back at the beast. “I have no idea.”
“You can’t bring it in the house until it has a bath,” he says on a heavy sigh. “Get some shampoo out of the bathroom and take him down to the lake.”
“You want me to get in that cold-ass water?” I jerk my thumb toward the lake. “What if he doesn’t like water?”
“He’s a dog. Who cares what he likes?” He shoots me a glare and I know I’m not going to win this one.
“I’ll give him a bath.”
“Yes, Pop. Now.”
“Are you going to be a bundle of sunshine the whole time I’m here?” I ask as I get out and take the dog’s leash, letting him out the back door. He sticks close to my leg, glaring at Pop.
“Depends. How long are you staying?”
“As long as you need me to stay.”
“I’ll stick my bundle of sunshine straight up your ass,” he mutters. And he goes to the house and lets himself inside.
I look down at the dog and wonder how the heck I’m supposed to wash this thing. It’s bigger than me.
Dad comes back to the door and throws out a bottle of shampoo and a towel. Then he slams the door shut. “Fine, old man!” I bellow at him. “I’ll wash the damn dog!”
“You will if you want to come inside!” he bellows back after he cracks the door just long enough to let his words tumble out.
“You want to take a bath?” I ask the beast.
His tongue lolls out and he pants at me, but he doesn’t complain. Of course, that probably just means that he has no idea what I’m talking about. What with him being a dog and all. I scratch my head.
Suddenly, I hear happy screams coming from the lake and the sound of giggles. I follow the noise and come to a dead stop as I step onto the sand.
My heart starts to thump. “Katie?”
The girl turns to look at me over her shoulder. She looks just like Katie did eighteen years ago, with her long, narrow body, flat chest, and her long dark hair. How could that be?
“Mom,” the girl says, looking at a woman who’s sitting on the sand, and she points at me, her eyes wide and wary. “Who’s the strange man who’s calling your name?”
The woman who was sitting on the sand lumbers to her feet. “Katie?” I say again.
“Oh, my God… Jake? Is that really you?” She tugs the Army hat she’s wearing down lower over her forehead, and I have to bend over to look her in the eye.
Then she’s moving across the sand toward me, and she’s in my arms. Immediately it’s like eighteen years disappears. Poof. Seems just like yesterday when I said goodbye to her and then never saw her again. We were sixteen years old and I thought I would die.
“Are you really here?” she asks, her voice breathy and wild.
“I can’t believe it,” I say. I still can’t catch my breath.
“I can’t either.” She motions toward the teenager who looks so much like her. “This is my daughter, Gabby.”
“God, she looks just like you,” I say. Gabby waves at me, her fingers slender and long, like a piano player. Just like Katie.
“She’s got some of her dad in her too,” Katie says, looking at her daughter, her gaze tender. Two smaller kids run up and Gabby wraps her arms around them like she needs to keep them safe. From me? Not hardly. “This is Alex, and this is Trixie.”
“When did you arrive?” I ask.
“This morning.” She scrubs at her eyes with her fists. “We drove all night.”
“I know the feeling. I had to pick Dad up and drove all night to get him.”
She grins. “Where is the old bear?”
“He’s at the house. Probably sitting there with his shotgun, waiting to blast me if I don’t wash the damn dog. I should have left his ass at the hospital.”
Her brow furrows.
“He said damn,” Alex says. He grins. “He sounds like Dad.”
I look around. “Is your husband here?”
She shakes her head. “No, he’s…not.” Her eyes avoid mine. What’s up with that? “Did you say you picked your dad up at the hospital? Is he all right?”
“He had a small stroke, but he’s going to be fine. You know him. He’s too mean to get sick.”
“I’m so sorry. I’ll have to go see him later.”
“He won’t be in a good mood,” I warn.
She snorts. “When was he ever?” Then she laughs, and it sinks into the center of me. It’s pure and clean and so unlike where I’ve been. It’s genuine. She’s genuine.
She points to my bottle of shampoo. “Are you taking a bath?”
I wince. “More like giving a bath.” I jerk my thumb toward the dog, who is sitting at attention by my hip. “He stinks.”
“He does,” she agrees with a nod of her head. “I smelled you guys coming down the path.”
Her little boy steps closer and holds up a hand as though I’m a teacher with a question and he has the answer.
“Yes, Alex,” she says gently.
“Can I help wash your dog?”
“Hell, you can do it,” I say.
The kid grins. I really should watch my mouth around the kids. I’ve just never been around many of them, at least not since I was one.
“Really?” he says. “Can I, Mom?”
“Does he bite?” she asks me.
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t know?”
“I just got him yesterday. At the pound.”
“What’s his name?” Alex asks.
“He doesn’t have one yet.”
Alex takes the leash from me and gives it a tug. The dog sits there like a lump.
“He’s not coming,” Alex says.
“Yeah, he doesn’t do much unless he wants to.”
Trixie walks over to the dog and looks him in the eye. They’re the same height. The dog looks over his shoulder at me as though asking me if this life is the one I intended for him. “Go on,” I say. Then he sticks out that big old tongue and slurps it up the side of Trixie’s face. She giggles, takes his leash, and leads him to the water. Alex holds out his hands and I toss him the bottle of shampoo, which he catches like a football.
I don’t think he’ll bite them. Or at least I hope he doesn’t. The dog walks right into the lake and sits down. Then he waits patiently as the kids pour shampoo all over him and lather him up. He looks at me and I would swear he grins at me.
Katie points at the dog. “Did he just smile?”
I nod and cross my arms over my chest. “I think so.”
“He needs a name.”
“Do you think your kids might give him one?”
She snorts again, and it makes me grin. “Try to stop them.” She gets quiet for a moment. Then she blurts out, “Do you remember the day we met?”
This time, it’s me who snorts. “Yeah, Katie. I remember.”
The first time I ever saw Katie Higgins, she was standing on the dock with a Coke bottle–the glass kind–pressed to her lips. I watched her throat wobble as she swallowed, and I knew I had to meet her. I had to kiss her. I had to…
Oh, hell. I had to throw up.
That’s what happens when you steal a six-pack from your dad at the age of sixteen. You act stupid, puke your guts out, and thoroughly embarrass yourself. I was about to run for the bushes to heave up my guts when my buddy patted me on the back. “Who’s that?” he asked.
“That’s the squirrel I’m going to marry,” I said.
He laughed. “Squirrel?”
“Girl,” I corrected, but it came out on a belch. “I meant girl.”
“When did she get here?” Fred asked.
“Today, I guess. Cabin 114 got rented for the summer at the last minute.” My parents owned a bunch of cabins on a lake, and we lived in our year-round house next door to it. From the end of May to the end of September, we catered to all sorts of people, from the rich to the poor, from those who slept in tents to those who drove in hundred thousand dollar luxury cars. Money never mattered when you were at the lake. The only thing that mattered was how much fun you could have, and I was having way too much fun.
“You need to throw up, man?” Fred asked.
I bit it back. “No, I’m good.” I shook my head, wishing like hell I hadn’t drunk that last beer. “I’m going to go talk to her.”
“You might want to wait until tomorrow,” he said, his brow furrowing. “You’re not in the best of shape.”
“I’ll be fined,” I said. “Fine,” I corrected. My tongue felt like it was too thick for my mouth.
“If you say so.” Fred took a step back so I could walk past him. He chuckled and shook his head, lifting his beer–wrapped in a coozie so his parents wouldn’t catch him–to his lips. “Have at it, man.”
I walked toward her and began to plan exactly what I’d say. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. No, that was lame. I could invite her for a walk. Or I could offer her a beer. Wait. No. I drank them all. Looking at you makes me feel happy. No, that was stupid. Do you want to take a walk with me? I scratched my head. Did I try that one already? I couldn’t remember.
As I stepped closer to her and her group of friends, I stopped to look up at the stars in the night sky. They winked at me and I did the only thing I knew to do. I winked back.
“Do you have something in your eye?” a voice said.
“What?” I looked down into the prettiest blue eyes I’d ever seen.
She pointed to my face. “Do you have something in your eye?” she asked again.
“I got my eye on you,” I said.
She giggled. “Have you been drinking?”
I held my finger and thumb an inch apart and stared through the opening. “Just a teeny tiny bit.”
She laughed. “I never would have known.”
“You’re really pretty.”
Her eyes opened wide. “Thank you.” She reached out to touch my arm. “Do you need to sit down?”
The dock started to tilt beneath my feet. She caught my elbow and gave me a push, kind of like the time somebody knocked the mailbox crooked and Pop shoved it with his palm until it stood up straight again.
Only that wasn’t what happened with me. There was no one to tamp the dirt around my shoes to hold me solid and straight. I didn’t stand up straight at all. I went crooked.
And right off the dock. Straight into the ice-cold water. And I took her with me.
I laugh so hard that I make myself snort, and then I laugh because I snorted, and it makes me laugh some more.
“Oh, my God, I’ve missed the sound of your laugh, Katie,” he says on a heavy sigh.
I’m still laughing so hard I can barely catch my breath. “You went ass-over-elbows into the lake.”
He nods, staring down at the pale white sand. Is he embarrassed? “And I took you with me.” He kicks at a stone with the tip of his shoe, a grin tugging at his lips. “It wasn’t my most shining moment.”
“It sobered you up pretty quick,” I remind him.
He shakes his head. “No, that was my dad staring down at us. That’s a boner killer if there ever was one.”
I drop my voice down so that it’ll sound like that of a man, imitating his father. “‘What the fuck are you doing in the lake, numbnuts?’” The giggles overtake me again. I wipe my eyes. “You called back, ‘I was trying to get in her pants.’”
Jake finally grins too. “And he yelled back, ‘Well, tossing her in the lake isn’t gonna make her want to spread her legs for you, son.’”
“‘That’s okay,’ you hollered back. ‘At least she knows I’m interested!’”
“‘She knows you’re a fucking idiot,’ he muttered and then he went to get the lifeguard hook so he could fish us out.”
I wipe my fingers beneath my eyes. “I had never heard so many f-bombs at one time. I was appalled.”
Jake looks into my eyes. “Then you climbed out behind me and I realized I could see through your shirt.”
Heat creeps up my cheeks. “And I wasn’t wearing a bra.”
“You didn’t need one,” he says. His eyes fall down to my boobs. “You didn’t have those back then.”
“I know, right?” I reply. “I got pregnant for the first time and suddenly there they were.” I shrug my shoulders.
“I liked them just fine back then, too,” he says. Then he grins at me.
“Oh, I remember how much you liked them.” My voice gets gruff and this is suddenly awkward.
“That was a good summer, Katie,” he says softly.
I smile at him. “Yeah, it was.”
“Where did you go after that?”
“I enlisted after I graduated.”
“In the military?”
“The Army. Yes.”
“Then you got married and started popping out kids.” He points to the three that are still working on his dog.
“Well, they didn’t just pop out. There was a considerable amount of pushing, if I remember correctly.”
“After three, I’d think they’d just walk out.”
“That would be nice, actually, compared to the real thing.”
He turns to face me. “Let’s talk about your vagina, shall we?”
I laugh again. “Why not? We already talked about my boobs.”
“Well, if I had a rack like that and nobody talked about them, I’d be sad. Just trying to keep up the morale here, Katie. Doing my job as a citizen of this great country.”
“If you start singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at my boobs, I’ll deck you.”
“That was next on my to-do list.” He gets quiet for a second. “Your daughter looks just like you. I thought she was you standing there when I first walked up.”
“She’s natured like her dad, though.” Talking about him makes me smile. “Same drill sergeant personality.”
“Did you meet him in the military?”
I nod. “Yes. Love at first sight.” I take in a deep breath. “There’s no better feeling, is there?”
He says nothing, then he tosses a rock toward the still water of the lake.
I realize that I’ve been talking about myself. “What did you do with yourself, Jake? You said you don’t live in North Carolina anymore?”
“I’m a cop.”
He glares down his nose at me. “Why are you surprised?”
“No, lie to me,” he deadpans. “Of course I want honesty.”
“You were kind of famous for the amount of trouble you could get into.”
He laughs. “I vaguely remember you being right there with me when I got into a bunch of that trouble.”
The crunch of gravel sucks me out of my summer memories. They’re one of my favorite places to go when things go bad–which they have been for a while now. “Jake!” someone bellows.
Jake gets to his feet and shades his eyes with his hands. “That’s Pop,” he says.
The old man drives the red golf cart directly onto the sand. “I need your help with something,” he says to Jake.
“Can it wait a minute?”
“If it could wait a minute, I wouldn’t be coming to get you, would I?” the old man grumbles. He looks around Jake and his eyes fall on me. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Hi, Mr. Jacobson,” I call out.
“You grew tits,” he replies.
I look down at my boobs. “Yes, I did.”
“I do aim to please.”
“Pop,” Jake complains, “don’t talk about her tits.”
“Why not?” the old man crows. “Those are some impressive tits.”
“He’s got you there,” Jake says, leaning closer to me like he’s whispering.
“Cabin 112 has a leaky roof, Jake,” Jake’s dad says. “I need you to fix it.” He points to a toolbox on the back of the golf cart.
Jake points to the same box. “You think I’m going to fix a roof?”
“I just had a stroke, son. I’m not going to fix it myself.”
His dad looks around Jake to talk to me again. “I had a stroke and I still can’t get this boy to do anything.”
“I’ll do it, Pop,” Jake replies. “Can you wait a minute?”
“Why?” Mr. Jacobson barks. “You going to kiss her goodbye, or something? I’ve seen you do that before.” He motions for Jake to continue by rolling his finger. “Get on with it. You have work to do.”
“It was good to see you, Katie,” Jake says, his eyes intently staring into mine.
“You too, Jake,” I say softly. “It has been a long time.”
Suddenly, Mr. Jacobson barks out, “What time is supper, Katie?”
“Supper. What time should I arrive?”
I point to my chest. “You want me to make you supper?”
He scratches his belly. “A man’s got to eat.”
“I haven’t exactly been to the store yet,” I admit.
“No problem,” Mr. Jacobson says. “I’ll bring steaks.”
“You don’t have to, Katie,” Jake rushes to say. “I’ll cook your damn steak, old man.”
Mr. Jacobson grins. “Good. You can do it at Katie’s cabin. We’ll use her grill.” He revs the engine on the gas-powered golf cart. “The day isn’t going to get any longer, boy,” he says to Jake. “We’ll see you at six,” Mr. Jacobson calls out to me.
“See you then,” I call back. Jake hops on the golf cart with Mr. Jacobson and they start to drive away. Then suddenly the cart screeches to a halt, with sand and gravel flying.
“My dog!” Jake yells
The dog is still covered in soap and my youngest daughter is laughing as she makes a cone of bubbles on the dog’s head. “You can get him later,” I yell back.
“Are you sure?”
I nod. “Positive.” They start to leave again. “Hey, Jake!” I yell.
He turns back and looks at me. I cup my hands around my mouth.
“Bring a salad! And some potatoes! Wrap them in tin foil! And a loaf of bread would be nice!”
Jake looks at me without saying a word for a beat longer than I’d expect. Then they drive away.
Gabby comes to sit next to me on the sand and dusts her hands together. “Was that old man talking about your boobs?” she asks.
“They’re joining us for supper.”
“What kind of dog is that?” I ask.
“A big one.”
“His name is Sally.”
“Did Trixie name him?”
I grin to myself. “Jake is going to love that name.”
“If you shake it more than three times, you’re playing with it!” Pop yells at me from the living room.
I look at my reflection in the mirror. I worked on the roof all afternoon, then came back to Pop’s and took a shower. I had to go to the store to get the makings for dinner, and now I’m trying to be sure I look nice. For what, I have no idea.
“I can shake it as many times as I want!” I yell back. I go out of the bathroom and find Pop waiting at the kitchen counter.
“Oh, thank God,” he murmurs. “I was about to throw in some tampons and pads so you could build a life raft and survive your period.”
“I wasn’t in there that long.” I grab a box and go to the fridge and take out all the dishes I prepared earlier. I made a salad, bought some bread and wrapped it in foil, wrapped sweet potatoes, and I have salad dressing, butter, and other condiments for the food. I got some hot dogs and buns, too, since I wasn’t sure if her kids would eat steak. I grab the steaks and put them in the box. “I feel like we’re doing meals on wheels.”
“I took it upon myself to get you a date.” He pats me on the shoulder. “You can thank me later.”
I drop the fork I’m holding and it clatters loudly on the counter. “A date.”
“You would have sat there beside her all afternoon fingering your vagina if I hadn’t intervened. You can thank me later.”
“Pop, did you see her?” I hold my hands out in front of my stomach. “She’s out to here. Pregnant.”
“Pregnant, shmegnant,” he grumbles. “Best sex I ever had was when your mom was pregnant. She was hotter than a five-dollar pistol.” He gets a faraway look in his eye. “She would ride–”
“Pop!” I yell, trying to cut him off. “Stop it. I don’t want a play by play!” I stuff my fingers in my ears and scream, “Lalalalalalalalalalalala!”
Pop walks out the door grumbling, leaving me to follow in his wake like I’m on a towrope. I heft the box onto my shoulder and follow Pop to the golf cart.
When we get to cabin 114, Pop slams on the brakes, sending the cart skidding off the path. “What the hell, Pop!”
“Just testing your reflexes.” Pop cackles and I get out of the cart.
I don’t know why I came home. He’s going to make me kill him. Then he’ll be dead and I’ll be in jail. I walk up to the cabin.
The door opens, and Katie’s oldest daughter holds a finger up to her lips. “Mom’s asleep,” she says. She steps to the side so I can look in, and I see Katie on the couch with her hand tucked under her chin. My heart clenches. She must have been really tired.
“Don’t wake her,” I say. I’d hate for her to miss a nap. Aren’t pregnant women supposed to need more sleep?
Katie’s doppelganger steps out onto the porch, closing the door behind her. “What did you bring?” She leans over to look into the box.
“A little bit of everything.”
Suddenly a boom goes off behind me and Pop walks around the corner. His eyebrows are singed and his hair is standing straight up. “I think the grill starter is broken,” he says. “I had to light it the hard way.”
I pinch the space between my eyes, at the bridge of my nose, and count to ten. Then I count to ten again.
“If you want to eat tonight, you better put the potatoes on,” Pop warns. Then he goes to sit on the porch, pulls a newspaper out of his back pocket, and flips it open. “You’re going to starve an old man to death if you don’t get moving.”
“You know what, Pop,” I start to say, pointing my finger at him. But the door opens and Katie comes out. She rubs her eyes and my breath catches.
“Am I late for dinner?” she asks. She smiles at me and all my ire at Pop floats away on the breeze.
“You’re right on time,” I say. Pop rolls his eyes behind her back. I’m going to kill him. “Where’s my dog?” I suddenly realize I haven’t seen him.
“You mean Sally?” She grins at me.
“Sally?” Is she serious?
“Sally,” she says again. “Trixie named him. The rest of the kids agreed. It’s permanent.”
“Until I change it.”
“You won’t change it.” She stares into my eyes. “You asked my daughter to name him and she did. She’s been through a lot. Let her name the damn dog, Jake.” She marches back up the steps of the porch and slams the door.
Well, that went well.
“You’re not getting lucky tonight,” Pop sings out.
“Shut up, old man,” I grumble as I walk past him. He cackles at me and I flip him the bird. “Put the potatoes on, will you?”
He sets the newspaper down and barks at Gabby. “Let me show you how to cook potatoes, girl,” he says. He lumbers to his feet, rambles in the box until he finds the potatoes, and she walks around the corner with him.
I open the front door of the small cabin and peer around the edge of it. Katie is bent over by the stove and I stop to stare at her. From the back, she doesn’t look pregnant. She looks perfectly wide in the hips and round in the rear end. God, I sound like Sandra Bullock describing a football player in The Blind Side. That’s not the case at all. She’s all woman. Then she stands up straight, turns to the side and stretches her back by pressing her belly forward. She’s all pregnant woman. I have to remind myself of that.
Just as quickly as her pregnant belly hit me, so does the smell of baked goods. “What’s that smell?”
“Apple pie,” she says.
“You made apple pie?” My heart flutters like it used to when she kissed me all those years ago. I’m thirty-six years old. It takes more to make a flutter when you’re older. Food is a good way.
“Well, made is a strong word. I just reheated.” She points toward her daughter, who is on the porch with Pop. “I sent Gabby to the store.”
“Is she old enough to drive?”
She smiles. “Just barely.” She takes in a deep breath and rubs the flat of her palm over her belly.
“You okay?” I ask.
She nods. “I’m fine. Baby boy is moving around.” She narrows her eyes at me. “Do you want to feel?”
I point to the basketball-size hump under her shirt. “Feel your belly?”
She takes two steps toward me, takes my hand and places it on the swell of her stomach. “Just wait a second,” she whispers.
I feel her breath as she inhales slowly. Then a tiny flutter bops the palm of my hand.
“Did you feel that?”
“That was the baby?” I ask softly.
She rolls her eyes. “No, I just have gas.” She grins. “Of course it was the baby.” She looks into my eyes, holding my palm against her shirt. “You don’t have any kids, do you, Jake?”
I shake my head and avoid her eyes.
“Have you ever been married?”
“You spoiled me for all other women, Katie.”
She shoves my shoulder and my hand falls from her belly. I want to put it back. “Wait,” I protest, “I was enjoying that.” She turns away from me. “Bring your uterus back. I want to touch it again.”
The front door opens and Gabby walks in. “Mom?” she says warily.
Katie looks up at her and arches her brow.
“Did he just talk about touching your uterus?” she asks her mother.
“Better my uterus than my vagina,” Katie sings out.
“Or your boobs,” Gabby adds, and then she shrugs. She jerks her thumb toward the porch. “Mr. Jacobson wants a deck of cards. He says he’s going to teach me to play blackjack.”
Katie crosses to the TV cabinet and opens it up. All the cabins are equipped with games and cards. She takes out a pack of cards and tosses it to Gabby. “Don’t bet with real money,” she says.
“Pop cheats,” I add.
Gabby clucks her tongue and acts like she’s shooting me with a pistol. “I got this under control,” she says, and she goes back outside.
“Her dad taught her to play blackjack when she was seven,” Katie says. “She’ll beat the pants off your old man.”
I grin. “Good. He deserves it.” I scratch my head. “So, about me touching your uterus again…” I hold my hand out in question. She takes it, lifts her shirt, and lays my hand upon her skin.
We suddenly go from curious and playful to warm and uncomfortable. “Um, this wasn’t what I meant.”
“Yeah?” I feel that tiny little flutter under my hand again and a grin tugs at the corners of my lips.
“That day when you fell in the lake, the first day we ever met…”
“Yeah?” I wait.
“You didn’t pull me in with you.”
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